Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Kyoto Daytrip - Part 2

A short ride on the subway later we found ourselves on the right side of the mountain, and within 10 minutes had arrived at our first large temple. It was already mid-afternoon by this point. Wanting to make sure we didn't get to Kiyomizu Temple too late to go in, we crammed 5 people into a taxi cab for the last 3 km of the way there.

Kiyomizu Temple is still one of my favorite places in Kyoto. Not only are the temple buildings themselves incredibly beautiful, but the whole thing is set on the Eastern Kyoto mountains, giving both beautiful green scenery and a view of Kyoto itself that even the 12 floor fancy department store rooftop terrace can't match. The main pavillion is made entirely out of wood (meaning no nails, glue, rebar, etc, went into its construction... it's sort of like a centuries old set of Jenga that, fortunately, no one has played).

There are (at least) three interesting 'side attractions' there as well. The first one is a temple with an underground passageway. A handrail guides visitors through a winding maze where part of the path is in complete darkness, underneath the temple area. Supposedly it's to simulate the experience of rebirth and renewal. Definitely fun as a self-powered "ride". Your spiritual experience may vary.

Next is a 'love' temple, where people come to pray for finding someone to be with. More amusingly, there are two stones at the temple, about 20' apart. Story goes that if touches the first stone, closes their eyes, then manages to walk in a straight line and find the second stone while thinking of a person, then that person is their true love (or equivalent). Makes for fantastic people watching, especially when a big group of students rolls by. Sadly, by the time we got there, that part of the temple was already closed.

The third bit of folklore I like is about the three branches of the spring at Kiyomizu. There is a platform, and from above that the natural spring water comes down in three streams. The original story I heard was that the spring is a wish-granting fountain. Each of the three streams would grant something different to the drinker: health, longevity, or wisdom (in some stories love substitutes one of those three). The catch: you only get to drink from one of the fountains in your life. Which one would you pick?

New to that area this year was a sign that, besides hawking the new 'holy bowls' that people could buy for 200 yen to drink out of (the old steel ones are still there, still hold water just fine, still cost nothing), also talks about the fountains. It explains that, although many believe that each branch of the spring grants something different, "the Temple has no comment" on those stories, and holds that the fountain is a wish-granting fountain. So apparently you get a long, wise, healthy life (with great love to boot), and you can drink from one or all three of the fountains, as many times as you like. (They did stop short of mentioning that wishes would work better if one drinks from the 200 yen holy bowl. Though I suppose it might be healthier, since you're not sharing with hundreds of other people.) Definitely more pleasant, but it does kinda take the introspective aspect out of the legend of the three fountains of Kiyomizu Temple. (Kiyomizu, by the way, means something like 'clear water'.)

Leaving the temple, we wound our way through the densely packed tourist shop street that leads up to the temple gates and sells everything from local sweets, tea, ice cream, to chopsticks, painted fans, keychains, and whatever doodahs you might wish with 'Kyoto' printed on them somewhere. We picked up some suprisingly bland green tea ice cream (come on, Kyoto, you can do better!) and some really great black sesame sweets.

Back in the streets of Kyoto, we stopped at a kimono (traditional Japanese clothing) store. One of our friends wanted to get a yukata (less formal clothing, generally worn during festivals; seen on the streets of Kyoto more often then elsewhere in the country), so we spent the next hour or so watching as she tried on and eventually was outfitted in a beautiful yukata. (She actually got a very nice yukata, on the formal end of the spectrum for that style.) The woman at the store who helped us and who patiently taught her how to put on the yukata (hint: there's more ties than just the big pretty 'obi' holding eveything in place... two extra for yukata, three for kimono) and how to tie that fancy bow on the obi (sash).

One interesting bit of trivia: in Japan, dressing someone into a kimono is a licensed profession, and takes three years of night school to get licensed into it.

From there, we walked (slower now that one of us was wearing traditional Japanese wooden shoes, 'geta') to a nearby Japanese restaurant that the shop clerk had recommended. Beautiful tatami room (with the merciful cutout under the table, so we didn't have to sit on our legs for the whole meal), great decor. Only catch: the menu was entirely in Japanese calligraphy. No pictures, no translations, nothing printed. Fortunately, the place specialized in odengo, or essentially bits of various yummy things cooked in broth. Since there were only 12 different things on the menu (that number keeps coming up, no?) and 5 of us, I just ordered one of everything.

About halfway through, the lady who helped us at the kimono store stopped by to say hello, on her way to her own meal. She really stood by her recommendation. :)

On the way back to the hotel, we still stopped by some temples in Gion that were lit up at night for some photos. We also made a stop at a hole-in-the-wall place for some really yummy croquettes. (I actually got an egg croquette, which is essentially a sunny side up fried egg -- made inside a small metal circle to keep it croquette-sized -- that was then battered and deep fried like a croquette. Quite good.)

From there, my friends headed back to their hotel and I made my way back to the train station and eventually Uji.

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